The modern technological age – first the Internet, and more recently, the advent of social media – has made everyone an expert at just about anything imaginable. Us runners, or at least the obsessive-compulsive variety, are a particularly curious breed of expertise-seekers. We want to know what, when, and how much to eat; how far and how fast to run; how heavy and how often to lift weights; how much time to take off for injury, and how much cross training we should do; and we want to know what shoes to wear, if any at all, that is…
Our list of curiosities is peculiar to the casual observer. We count miles/kilometres instead of calories. We prefer Strava to Facebook. We are the high-performance runners (in lieu of the demeaning obsessive-compulsive label) – the runners who run to get faster (whether that’s breaking 3hrs in the marathon, or breaking 13mins in the 5km), as opposed to the runners who run to stay healthy.
So in the age of super-foods, of detox juice cleanses, of low-carb, high protein, fat-is-good, gluten-free mumbo jumbo, where does the high-performance runner stand? Is conventionally evolving wisdom enough for us, or does our pursuit to test the limits change the advice we should be following? And seriously, should I run 50km a week, or should I run 150km a week?
Depending upon the domain you’re seeking expertise in (diet, mileage, weights, psychology, perhaps even faith!), chances are there is a certain degree of polarisation in the arguments made for and against certain practises. You’re either high mileage or low mileage, weights or no weights, low carb-high fat or high carb-low fat. And while the information age has made it easier to self-educate on these issues, it has also blurred the boundary between information use and information abuse. Where once we found advertisements on television, and information in scientific journals, now we find information and advertising in a single place: the internet. Twitter has become the playground of people with vested interests in both business and/or in science, which has made it difficult to decipher what’s right and what’s right($$)!
Some of you will know of the famous running physiologist, Tim Noakes. He wrote one of the most comprehensive “modern” bibles of running, The Lore of Running. Noakes subscribes to the principle of scientific enquiry that the betterment of scientific understanding is not through proving, but rather through disproving phenomena; almost like a process of elimination. His career has been made famous by the relentless pursuit of disproving long-held beliefs, often in the face of critics and more conservative scientists. While his relentlessness has bore it’s critics, one cannot deny the impact Noakes has had on our modern understanding of VO2, on the central governor model of exercise control, of hydration, and most recently, of diet. For those who don’t know about Noakes’ most recent work, he advocates a low carbohydrate, high fat diet, with modest protein intake in a book he co-authored, called The Real Meal Revolution. The basis for a lot of his theories revolve around the idea of insulin resistance – a relative desensitisation of metabolically active cells to insulin (insulin promotes cellular uptake of glucose from the blood), inciting a cascade of processes that promote the conversion of dietary carbohydrate to stored fat, and inhibit the use of stored fat as an energy substrate.
A few important points are lost in the raging debate between Noakes and scientists/physicians who criticise such extremes in dietary advice. And it is these lost points that should remind us – the high-performance runners – of the importance of making well-informed decisions and steering away from the polar extremes of the advice spectrum. In his latest book, Noakes makes the point that in athletes who already subscribe to a modest or high-carb diet without deteriorating performance or weight-gain, that there may not be any advantage for shifting the balance between carbohydrate and fat consumption. If you didn’t read his book, you probably wouldn’t be aware of a number of his important disclaimers. After all, not everyone is insulin resistant, and insulin resistance occurs over a wide spectrum of severity. One thing is for sure though: dietary fat – particularly the saturated variety, is not the evil we were once led to believe it was.
Furthermore, if all you have done is read Noakes’ prolific twitter feed, and not read his book or his extensive scientific publications, then it is easier to criticise him. The man who has made a career out of disproving long-held scientific beliefs is very good at promoting the success stories that prove his own stance. But then again, perhaps his contention is that the success stories he retweets disprove the role of dietary fat in chronic cardiovascular diseases, rather than prove the validity of replacing high carb for high fat as a pathway to weight loss and better health.
So what’s the point of all this gobbledygook? Well, firstly, I use examples from the dietary and food industry in this piece, because it represents an industry with a growing presence in social and popular media. Many high-performance runners feel, “perhaps there’s something in this changing dietary paradigm that will make me faster”. Yet most of the change to the dietary paradigm in social and popular media target the inactive and unhealthy. Even Noakes’ model shows promise from a performance perspective for marathoners, but what about the 800m-5000m runners? The point here is to illustrate that the pursuit for the right answer isn’t always obvious. And at each extreme of any polarised view we come across, we, the high-performance runners, are likely not the target audience. And if we are, often, there are as many iterations of the same advice as there are authors writing about it. So, two pieces of humble wisdom as you navigate your way through social media and the internet for the answer to how to run faster:
Firstly, correlation does not imply causation. This may have been one of the most important lessons of my recently completed M.Sc. When one sees results concomitant to some intervention, we cannot always assume the intervention is the cause for the results we see. Or perhaps more accurately, we cannot always assume the intervention is the intervention we thought it to be. Take the gluten-free phenomena. While it is difficult to deny the science behind the role of gluten and other compounds contained within many of society’s staple selection of processed grains, often when you get anecdotal reports of better health and vitality by adopting a gluten-free diet, it is accomplished by replacing the often nutritionally-light (without a tonne of vitamins/minerals/phytonutrients) gluten-containing, processed foods, with nutritionally-dense, gluten-free whole foods. So is the feeling of better health a product of the elimination of gluten, or is it a product of adapting a more varied and nutritionally-dense eating regimé? Or both? When we go in search of the answer to how do I get faster, scope out the basis for various claims first. What has worked for others may not be attributable to the intervention they preach, and may not apply to your unique set of circumstances. For you could chose to go gluten-free on a diet of gluten-free baked goods, filled with sugar, and find yourself feeling like crap! Be careful in your analysis of the correlation, and the exact cause for a particular phenomena.
Secondly, the target audience for a particular stance is not always as all-encompassing as the author might think. When the benefits of barefoot running became popularised over the last six years, the proponents may not have been thinking of the people who run over 120km/week on hard, flat surfaces, or the years of running they’d already completed in shoes, or the fact that they’d coped just fine running in shoes for however many years already. In fact, from a biomechanical and running economy standpoint, the best running economy is often a product of that runner’s freely-chosen running gait. Promoting change to a runner’s mechanics with barefoot running to fit an idealised model isn’t always the answer to running faster, and running stronger. This is not to say the idea of barefoot running does not have merit, but how it is used and prescribed lacks clarity. So, while there is expertise and good advice to be found from every angle, the angle has to be considered. Never forget, you’re a high-performance runner, attempting to accomplish feats of running prowess that 99% of people can’t even dream of. Naturally, 99% of what you read – despite being useful and accurate – cannot necessarily be taken on face value.
When the principles of functional stress and adaptation are not considered, barefoot running can do more harm than good.
Like you, I’m still in search of the answers to faster, and more sustained, injury-free training and racing. I’ve made many mistakes along the way, and my interpretation of what works, and what doesn’t, won’t necessarily agree with the next person. Far be it from me to offer answers to how to run faster – I’m still figuring that out too. The challenge is to get to the underlying principles of any theory. In the pursuit of knowledge and expertise, you can be sure that you’ll be navigating through many, polarised, politicised, and paid-up views!
Of course, if all else fails, two final thoughts:
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
K.I.S.S. (keep it simple, silly!)